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Southern Universities Partner To Improve Life in the Mississippi Delta

BATON ROUGE – With the help of a $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, historically Black Grambling State University is working with two predominantly White universities to help the impoverished Mississippi Delta area pull itself up by its bootstraps.

The Mid-South Delta Leaders Program is designed to provide special training to a diverse class of leaders and potential leaders from the 55 counties and parishes in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that comprise the Delta.

Dr. Obadiah Simmons Jr., dean of continuing education and special programs at Grambling State and Louisiana coordinator for the Mid-South Delta Leaders Program, says that one of the main goals of the program is to foster a spirit of inclusiveness by bringing people of color, women and youth into the leadership development program to help make sure that everyone has a stake in the Delta’s future.

Simmons says the inaugural class includes schoolteachers, school board members, town mayors and judges, as well as representatives from the private sector.

“We even have a farmer in this class. We have a great cross- section of the community represented, and it makes for some great discussion and debate during our sessions,” Simmons says.

The class focuses on four main areas: economic development, education, public policy, and the historical and cultural significance of the area.

In the instance of economic development, for instance, the class focuses upon the importance of nurturing small businesses. Capturing a big “plant” is still the dominant strategy in many rural areas, Simmons says. As a result, approaches that build on local talents and resources are often overlooked.

“We’re promoting a regional outlook that understands that what happens in the Louisiana Delta region will impact not only the state, but other areas across state lines. If we look at these problems as good stewards for this region, then it will not just help my community, but will help everybody in the region,” Simmons says.

In addition to encouraging participants to take a broader look at issues, the MidSouth Delta Leaders Program also emphasizes the important role that small businesses can play in economic development, Simmons says.

The program features educational retreats, forums in which experts address the group and even study tours.

“Right now, we’re planning a travel tour to Washington, D.C., in September where the group will have a chance to learn a little bit more about public policy, and how it works,” Simmons says.

The trip will also introduce the class to federal agencies and other organizations that might have an interest in the Delta region.

Traveling to the nation’s capital will also give the students a chance to develop contacts that may serve them well in the future, Simmons says.

“One of the unique things about this program is that as we learn about the process, we also learn to network and to utilize those resources,” Simmons says.

Simmons says the program calls for representatives from Grambling State, Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, to coordinate a total of three such classes of about 45 “pupils” over a five-year period.

Each class will meet regularly over 18 months to help build leadership skills and foster a new sense of awareness about the Delta region, Simmons says.

Jerry L. Smith, an Arkansas State University administrator who serves as the Arkansas coordinator for the Delta Leaders Program, says as part of the class, each student is asked to develop a major project to help put classroom ideas to work.

“This is not just a classroom exercise. As they are getting their training, they are asked to apply those ideas to their project,” Smith says.

Smith says each student would receive approximately $2,000 upon graduation to help fund their project.

To help spur economic development, one student is planning an antique car race back and forth across the Mississippi River through the Delta. Another student is looking at establishing a Web site for the Delta region.

Smith says he thinks general conditions in the Delta have improved since he moved there in 1987, but the region still lags behind most other areas of Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.

In 1990, for example, the average Delta worker earned $17,901 a year, while workers in non-Delta counties of those three states made $21,035, according to the U.S. Census.

By 1999, that gap had widened, with Delta workers averaging $23,951 a year, compared to their non-Delta counterparts’ $27,754 a year. Although Simmons himself hails from Inkster, Mich., he had family ties that took him as a child on an annual pilgrimage into the Delta.

Simmons’ parents were both from Northeastern Louisiana, and Grambling State alumni.

“Each year, we would drive from Michigan to Louisiana to visit relatives, and part of the drive actually was through the heart of the Delta. We’d get as far as Memphis, and head down Highway 61 to Leland and then across into Arkansas and then down into Louisiana,” Simmons says.

According to Simmons, Grambling State got involved in the leadership program through their participation in the Mid-South Delta Consortium, which is a group of universities throughout the three-state area that have come together to work with the Delta communities.

“It gives Grambling an opportunity to extend its resources from our campus into these areas where we might not have had an opportunity,” Simmons says, adding that Grambling State is a natural partner for Delta education programs.

“Historically, Grambling has always had its roots in the area of teacher education, and this fits in well with the training programs that are offered through the consortium,” Simmons says.

(This article was reprinted with permission from Black Issues in Higher Education.)

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